Why the faculty fell

Ever since Stanley Aronowitz popularized the term the “knowledge factory” to describe the profit-driven restructured US universities in the era of privatization, scholars have sharpened their debates about how to reclaim the intellectual purpose of higher education and challenge the debt peonage of students. Today, the corporatization of higher education dominates academic journals and blogs, punctuated by the story in 2013 of the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor who had taught French at Duquesne University for twenty-five years and died penniless of cancer at the age of eighty-three.

From Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty to Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University, books by scholars with decades of academic experience detail the gutting of resources from public universities, the impact of administrative bloat, and the pathological assault on tenure that mark the last thirty to forty years. The empirical evidence these authors summon to make their cases for faculty and student involvement to challenge market values has found an eloquent theoretical complement in Henry Giroux’s Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education.

Giroux’s vivid prose, so effective in his many editorials and dozens of books, are deployed here to ask and respond to the big questions, the whys behind neoliberalism’s war on higher education. Why the atomization of the academy? Why the corporate hit-job on the humanities? Why the replacement of critical thinkers with a drone army of precarious labor? Why the decimation of all things public, including the public intellectual? Why the consumerization of students? WHY? Profit alone can’t explain these developments since profit has always been capital’s goal. What changed?

[P]ublic schools and colleges are under assault not because they are failing (though some are) but because they are one of the few public spheres left where people can learn the knowledge and skills necessary to allow them to think critically and hold power and authority accountable. . . .

In addition, students are educated to be active consumers and compliant subjects, increasingly unable to think critically about themselves and their relationship to the larger world. This virus of repression, conformity, and instrumentalism is turning public and higher education into a repressive site of containment, devoid of poetry, critical learning, or soaring acts of curiosity and imagination.

The academy has always been at war with itself as a site of both legitimization of the status quo and ideological exploration that could endanger the establishment. But the stakes have grown higher under the pressures of unprecedented profits and hypermilitarization that are the hallmarks of contemporary neoliberalism. The need to fundamentally transform higher education, especially public education for the middle and working classes, has become imperative. 

It is no longer sufficient for the academy to spread and normalize the ethos of neoliberalism in which all studies and personnel are reduced to their economic function: return on investment. Now, academia must pulverize our capacity to dream if imperial subjects are to be sufficiently docile. It is not a new project, but like global warming it appears to have reached a tipping point.

Newfield’s 2008 Unmaking the Public University outlines the underlying purpose of the right-wing attacks of the 1980s that came to be known as the “culture wars.” Conservatives corralled liberals and society at large into their project of discrediting social equality. Attacks on affirmative action and political correctness, at first driven by the Right, won over liberals who came to accept racial justice as a handout to the undeserving and equality generally as “a synonym for mediocrity, failed government programs, and coddled incompetence.” The strategy was a kind of “intellectual neutron bomb” that destroyed the social while keeping intact the technological apparatus of the university.

By 2011, Ginsburg’s Fall of the Faculty captured widespread attention among scholars and their advocates for its searing, often hilarious critique of “administrative imperialists.” University presidents became CEOs and their business partner “deans, deanlets, and deanlings” are an ever-growing army of bean-counters and conference-goers planning endless structural planning initiatives to pad their own résumés, attract capital, and justify their own existence. 

Giroux’s latest work incorporates these developments and advances an implicitly Marxist critique of why the systemic assaults on higher education are not merely profit-driven, but ideological and structural bulwarks against mass resistance. He argues, “Capital is not only wedded to the production of profits, it is also invested in a form of intellectual violence that legitimates its savage market-driven practices and the exercise of ruthless power.” Steep cuts to the study of art, language, and philosophy aren’t simply the result of the inability of these curricula to contribute enough to the bottom line. The humanities are dangerous because they stoke critical thinking, question established norms, and encourage an iconoclasm that threatens power.

n every realm, from labor relations to campus housing, higher education now pits the market against the public good. Giroux opens the book with a poetic analysis of this dystopic state of affairs:

As a theater of cruelty and mode of public pedagogy, neoliberalism as a form of economic Darwinism attempts to undermine all forms of solidarity capable of challenging market-driven values and social relations, promoting the virtues of an unbridled individualism that is almost pathological in its disdain for community, social responsibility, public values, and the public good. 

Today, nearly 70 percent of the nation’s 1.5 million higher education researchers and teachers are contingent labor. Tens of thousands of faculty, including many at the most prestigious institutions, earn wages so low that they qualify for public assistance—until that too is entirely disposed of if current policies are not reversed. 

Dormitories now resemble mini-malls, and some have concierges to “service” the students who are referred to and treated as “consumers.” As average individual student debt nears $30,000 in a job market that is progressively dismal, students are bearing the brunt of an undeclared national divestment from public higher education. Based on this trend, most states will zero out on public expenditures for higher education in a generation or two, according to the American Council on Education.

Giroux is damning in his assessment and condemnation of university athletics as yet another front in creating “disposable” youth. Many universities’ athletic budgets make it appear as if they are primarily sports institutions that disperse diplomas on the side. Though it’s worth noting that these programs are almost never profitable, least of all to their amateur athletes who are brutally exploited without pay. Giroux writes, “As big money, big sports, and the culture of illiteracy, violence, and corruption they inspire make clear, schooling is no longer about educating students. Rather, it is about exploiting them when not infantilizing them in the name of entertainment.” His take that this has engendered a kind of “social death” may seem extreme until one ponders the meaning behind the student riots at Penn State in defense of the fired football coach discovered to have covered up repeated sexual assaults of young boys.

It would be easy to fall into a deep demoralization about the state of higher education, but Giroux writes on the heels of a mass insurrection in Canada where he teaches at McMaster University in Ontario. He spends a chapter describing and analyzing the spring 2012 movement that began as a protest against a proposed raise in tuition fees in Quebec and grew into a social uprising and mass civil disobedience by workers and students. It was “the longest and largest student strike in the history of North America.” Compared with the Occupy movement that erupted in New York the year before, Giroux correctly cites Quebec’s student unions, political organizations, and sustainable strategies as elements that allowed Canada’s eruption to advance farther and leave behind a greater imprint. 

Many on the left would take issue with Giroux’s perspective that these trends in higher education mark a fall from grace for the United States, depicted as “a symbol of freedom that elicited worldwide respect.” For the colonized and impoverished of the world, including domestically, promised freedoms have always been elusive. And there are places in the book where Giroux seems to confuse the perpetrators of a debased culture of celebrity with those who are bombarded by it. 

Giroux’s central critique, however, is spot-on and well-crafted. Institutions of higher learning have undertaken decades of retooling to suit the needs of the modern neoliberal ruling class. It is not sufficient for them to merely cut budgets and denigrate conditions of intellectual labor and learning. The neoliberal state must snuff out creativity in order to obliterate society’s capacity to dream of alternatives. Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education is a call for faculty, students, and society at large to challenge the elite’s attacks by taking up the ideological defense of the public good against unbridled individualism. 

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

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